Author: Matthew Dickman
W.W. Norton, 2012
Matthew Dickman’s Mayakovsky’s Revolver is the follow-up to his award-winning debut and is very much a continuation of his previous work. Many themes, ideas, and topics, such as suicide, brotherly love, happiness, depression and our place in universe are tethered from his first book to his second, but not in a redundant way.
The book is split into five sections. Sections two and four are more broad in terms of topic. The second section, entitled “One: Dear Space” is more mirrored in topic to the fourth section, “Two: Elegy to a Goldfish.” Both sections offer poems of love, longing, death and self-deprecation sprinkled with becoming a better person (the poems “Bridge” and “Ghost Story” stand out). While the opening and closing sections are each composed of one poem that attempts to describe life “In Heaven” (opening) and life “On Earth” (closing).
However, it is the third section, “Notes Passed to My Brother on the Occasion of His Funeral,” we all came for. Dickman’s brother’s suicide is the main force behind this book and the thirteen poems written about his dead brother are stark and exploratory. Some images leave the reader empty.
For example, from the first poem of the section entitled “My Brother’s Grave”:
“Two kids / from the high school nearby / will fuck each other on top of him / and I won’t know how to stop them.”
Those lines are so simple, yet completely helpless, leaving the reader how the speaker feels when thinking of his brother’s grave: he’s dead and the world will keep living, there’s nothing to do. Imbedded in many of those dark poems are instances of pure love, enjoyment, several epiphanies, and comedy. In the midst of suicide, heaven, loss, questioning one’s own existence, Dickman still finds moments to be humorous.
The poem “Coffee” juxtaposes drinking expensive coffee with current uprisings. Lines 7-12:
where I almost lived for a moment but
then the rebels surrounded the capital
so I stayed home and drank
coffee and listened to the radio
and heard how they were getting along.
That is the perfect picture of first-world privilege. Drinking coffee, we can toy with the idea of living in the nations rich in coffee history, and then decide to stay home and drink coffee from those countries because they’re in a dire state of political unrest, and we wouldn’t want to get hurt. Most Dickman fans will be familiar with his poem “Slow Dance” and the pure love expressed for the simple connection we can sometimes have with someone. Those moments are not lost in his second book.
In “Getting It Right,” a poem celebrating the body (reminiscent of Whitman), Dickman crescendos by directly comparing parts of the body of a lover to nations and governments leading to these lines, “Your shoulders / make me want to raise an army and burn down the embassy.” A violent line, yes, but a line whose implicit hope for a better world, a happier world, doesn’t need explanation because it’s inherent in the actions.
The poem that stood out the most to me every time I reread the book, was “I Feel Like the Galaxy.” It is part of the section dealing directly with his brother’s suicide. The opening line is direct and hopeful, “You have not died yet.”
Then Dickman imagines all the mundane things his brother would be doing, all tinged with his future-death, such as, “you are walking down Thirteenth Avenue /… / thinking about death.” The juxtaposition of “You have not died yet” and “thinking about death” are hopeful and then inevitably sad. Dickman’s ability to do both is depressing and haunting. The poem continues to imagine the alive brother living, yet always waiting and hoping for death.
However, the brother then dies in the poem and Dickman talks about how he still finds him: “in a tin can / of cigarette butts…. / in my kitchen, / in the handle of a knife… / sitting on my bed…” Finally, Dickman goes out on a limb: “You should come back.” Such a simple line with so much self-exposure, so much hope laid out bare for judgment, loss, success.
You should land in my backyard at night
makes a great sucking sound
and begins to lower,
walking out in your silver uniform
or in the green and gray body, the silky wet skin
of an alien. I will take you back
anyway you want.
Those final two lines again so open, bare and hopeful. Then, to end the poem:
I will look into your diamond-
shaped face….still recognize you
in the yard while you pick at the grass,
staring up at the sky, and cry and scream for missing it.
So much selfishness. So much love and hope and understanding that his brother is dead, and therefore no longer belongs in this world, like an alien, yet still saying, ‘I want you, even if it means you must suffer, I want to be with you.’ The love, like in “Slow Dance,” is whole and pure and perfect and heartbreaking.
Matthew Dickman’s ability to constantly go out on a limb, searching for love, reasons to live, ways to understand suicide, simple happiness, death, sadness and his ability to question all those things openly, without assumption, simply wondering Why? Why not? What is the benefit? What is the loss? is so much fun to be a part of, is so much fun to wonder, and wander, along with. Probing is something he has always done in his poetry, and we hope he continues his path because his poems are something we learn from.